See you, see me

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

In geographical terms that region between is hard to find, so hard that you have to make it up. It’s like trying to drive through the region between Tennessee and Alabama – there is no region between, but there is a line, and in the case of Samaria and Galilee, it runs between two groups of people who haven’t been friendly with each other for longer than anyone alive can remember.

Why would Luke write about a region where there is none? Some of his readers suggest with an apologetic tone that the author wasn’t from around those parts, wasn’t familiar with the land between Galilee and Jerusalem. Others notice that Luke’s odd geography serves a theological purpose. That line between the two groups is not as clearly drawn as the state line between Tennessee and Alabama, but it nevertheless defines memories and habits of interacting and imaginations. It’s a line not so much on the land as it is one in the heart.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, and we know that’s more than a journey across a piece of Middle Eastern geography. He’s on his way to be crucified, condemned by every earthly power, from Rome’s imperial interests to religious traditions and public opinion. He’s on his way to die a terrible death, pushed outside all the lines we use to define the boundaries of human community. Jesus is on his way to be completely excluded through betrayal, denial, ridicule, torture and silence. On his way to Jerusalem he travels through the region between, letting his feet trace the lines that divide us, with his hands stretched out to either side in the most vulnerable gesture of reconciliation, all the way to the cross. The region between is the place of Jesus’ ministry.

By making up a region between Galilee and Samaria Luke also subtly reminds us that there are people in that no-man’s-land, people who belong neither here nor there, people who would disappear altogether if mercy didn’t have eyes. The region between is the invisible land where invisible people live, untouchable people, unmentionable people – or perhaps I should not say they live there, but rather that they long for life there.

Jesus comes through the region on his way to Jerusalem and ten men with leprosy approach him. It doesn’t matter anymore what side of which border they once came from; if they had been poor or wealthy, pious or irreverent, highly educated or illiterate. It doesn’t matter who they used to be or who they could have been; their skin shows marks that isolate them completely by rendering them ritually unclean. Whoever they used to be, now they are untouchables. They have been pushed out for fear of pollution and contagion and left to wander in the region between. Jews and Samaritans had been unfriendly neighbors for many generations, but both groups honored the law of Moses that declared,

Persons who have the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head be disheveled; and they shall cover their upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” They shall live alone; their dwelling shall be outside the camp.[1]

These ten whose dwelling had been outside the camp for who knows how long approached Jesus, crying out his name, crying out for mercy. Jesus, we read in Luke, when he saw them, said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus saw them, which is no small thing in a world where so many people and things cry out for mercy, and yet remain invisible, their cries swallowed by silence. Jesus saw them, and he told them to show themselves to the priests. It was the priests’ responsibility to examine the skin of those who thought that the rash had healed, the spot vanished, the blemish disappeared. The priests were the gate keepers who determined who could be restored to life in the community. Go, said Jesus, show yourselves to the priests. And as they went, they were made clean.

The ten, after their encounter with Jesus, returned to life, no longer invisible and untouchable. Imagine, one of them walked through the door, hugged and kissed his wife and they didn’t let go till the cows came home. Another picked up for the first time the child that was born while he was gone. Yet another walked across the market to the synagogue where he hadn’t been able to pray for years; he stood on the threshold, tears in his eyes. More than one of them danced around the bonfire in which the torn clothes of their exile went up in flames. They were alive, they were at home.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. All ten cried out for mercy, longing for life; and all ten were made clean. But one of them saw something the other nine didn’t. One of them didn’t simply return to the life he once knew; he returned to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. One of them returned to the region between where life cries out for healing and fulfillment and where God’s kingdom is present in the person of Jesus.

He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

You remember that other story of a Samaritan who saw what others didn’t or wouldn’t see, don’t you? The one about the man who fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead? You know the story. First a priest happened to come down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Next a Levite came to the place and saw the man, and he passed by on the other side. And then a Samaritan came near, and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. Three men saw a wounded man by the side of the road, but only one saw a human being crying out for mercy, and that one was a Samaritan.

Jesus tells us two stories where the despised outsider sees what the insiders do not see, do not want to see, or perhaps cannot see. It was one from the other side of the line who grasped that love of neighbor doesn’t stop at the line. And again in the story of the ten it was a Samaritan who saw and recognized the meaning of Jesus.

Ten cried out for mercy. Ten were made clean. Nine went home and lived happily ever after. One returned and praised God because he had seen the presence and reign of God in Jesus. One returned, glorifying and praising God for what he had seen, much like the shepherds who had found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger, just like the angel had told them. Good news of great joy for all the people. A Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord has come to the region between not to pass through, but to heal, restore, and fulfill life for all the people.

The story of the one in ten is probably not a story about statistics, claiming that only 10% of all the people who have encountered Jesus actually get what his presence and actions mean. But it is another story indicating that the meaning of Jesus is better seen on the margins, from the perspective of shepherds, tax collectors, and Samaritans, the perspective of those whom Jesus sees but who are otherwise ignored, scorned, untouched. This story and others invite us to look at the people who live on the margins of our communities and who are treated as invisible, and to see them through the eyes of mercy, the way Jesus looks at them.

But not only that; the stories also invite us to look at Jesus from their perspective; to discover the fullness of salvation with them, with their stories, their experiences, their songs and prayers of thanksgiving.

And there’s yet another dimension: the line that divides us and keeps us cut off from life in fullness is drawn not just between us and them or around memories, imaginations or habits of interacting with others. The line runs through our own souls. There are parts of ourselves that are being pushed to the margins of attention by others, perhaps even by ourselves. There’s the region between the glory of who we ourselves can accept ourselves to be and that other side of us, that other person, the stranger inside we’d rather not have in our story – the man with the imperfection, the woman with the blemish. How tempting to think that God only wants to see the side of us that shines, the moments that make us proud, and not the parts we would rather keep invisible.

But the good news of great joy for all the people is that Jesus has come to the region between not to pass through on the road to glory, but to heal and reconcile what sin has broken, to bring wholeness to what we can only see as divided, within and around us. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, and we know that’s more than a journey across a piece of Middle Eastern geography. On his way to Jerusalem he travels through the region between, with his feet following the lines that divide us, with his hands stretched out to either side in the most vulnerable gesture of reconciliation, all the way to the cross, erected outside the city gates, outside the camp, any camp, outside all that defines the boundaries of human community – and there God’s faithfulness prevails. There divine mercy sees us in all our violent pride and helplessness, sees and receives the whole ugly and painful truth of sin and heals us. So, yes, make a joyful noise, all the earth; sing the glory of God’s name. Amen.

[1] Leviticus 13:45-46